Afghan deportees from Iran return to a home they barely know
ISLAM QALA, AFGHANISTAN // Tajigul Haidary had overstayed her residents’ visa in Iran and was expecting a hefty fine when she went to renew it.
Instead, she was arrested as an illegal immigrant, imprisoned and deported back to Afghanistan early this week.
It’s a homeland that she hardly knows. Her family took her to Iran when she was nine years old. Now 26, she is married to another Afghan in Iran, has two children and is five months pregnant. She was wrested away from them when she was deported.
“My children cried, but it made no difference. I don’t know what to do. I have to get back,” she said as she sat on a plastic chair in a shed at the Islam Qala border crossing.
Around 25,000 Afghans a month are deported from Iran at Islam Qala – nicknamed “Zero Point”. Another 30,000 a month cross returning home voluntarily.
Iran has long been an outlet for Afghans, either searching for work to escape poverty or seeking refuge from their country’s chronic wars and instability.
During a visit by Afghan president Ashraf Ghani to Tehran on Sunday, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani told him that the issue of Afghans in Iran “must be settled”.
Mr Rouhani said Afghans living in Iran would be registered “so that the government can make appropriate decisions about them”.
“Individuals who want to carry out business activities or study need to do so under legal requirements of obtaining visas,” Mr Rouhani said after the talks.
Millions fled from Afghanistan to neighbouring Iran and Pakistan during the 1979-1989 Soviet occupation of Afghanistan or after the Taliban came to power in 1996 – creating one of the world’s largest and longest refugee situations.
In the past 12 years, the UN refugee agency UNHCR has helped repatriate some 5.8 million Afghans who voluntarily agreed to return home.
In Iran, Afghans fill menial jobs like construction and some have lived in the country for years. As a result, there are not only around 950,000 registered Afghan refugees in Iran with legal status but 1 million to 1.4 million undocumented Afghans, according to estimates by the International Organisation for Migration.
In Pakistan, there are some 1.6 million registered Afghan refugees and an estimated 1.5 million undocumented ones.
IOM’s communications director in Afghanistan, Matthew Graydon, said up to 10 per cent of the returnees from Iran are vulnerable minors, girls and boys between 13 and 17 years old who could fall prey to traffickers, as well as mentally and physically disabled people, women travelling alone or single mothers. But neither IOM nor the Afghan authorities can offer help to all those who need it.
He said there has to be a concerted effort from humanitarian agencies and the Afghan, Iranian and Pakistani governments to find a long-term solution to their situation.
Traffic at Zero Point, 115 kilometres west of the provincial capital of Herat, is mostly one way – people coming out of Iran, willingly or not, along with trucks loaded with concrete, steel and fuel being imported. The trucks mostly return to Iran empty since Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries, offers little to export besides its desperate people.
“At 2 o’clock every afternoon, about 30 buses arrive carrying about 500 returnees. We do a random sampling, checking that they are who they say they are, and record their biometric details,” said Maj Abdul Rafah Watander, head of the Afghan border police at Islam Qala.
Among those being deported are sometimes Afghans who had legitimate visas in Iran but were arrested and expelled for no apparent reason, he said.
The border guards try to sift out criminals or people with special needs who need care among the crowds, but with limited staff they can only check about 100 people a day, Maj Watander said.
The vast majority of the arrivals are young men caught in Iran after paying traffickers to sneak them in for work.
Nurullah, 16, was among 26 young men from his village in Faryab province, north of Herat, who paid US$200 (Dh735) each to traffickers to take them to Tehran. They made it as far as the Iranian city of Isfahan, 340km from Tehran, before police caught them.
Nurullah said there’s hardly any young men left in his village since they all leave to find work elsewhere. But Nurullah said he will not be slipping back across the border.
“It was just too stressful. I’ll stay at home from now on and find whatever work I can. And maybe a wife.”
* Associated Press
Updated: April 22, 2015 04:00 AM